Gerard quickly realized there were other, more pressing stories to tell and abruptly asked the students to shift the focus off their own lives and onto the Denverities living on the sidewalks and parking lots around them. The work comes together in “Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do?,” an immersive, multimedia exhibit that runs through Dec. 23.
In a season when most cultural offerings are artificially pumpedup with happy and jolly, the show is a welcome dose of authenticity, a surprisingly frank, and deep, look at what it means not to have a place to sleep at night. As its title implies, its tone reports on the outrage that homeless advocates expressed as the city took a hard line on its least fortunate citizens.
“Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do?” is — as you might expect from an exhibit turned around in just over a month — a hodgepodge of things. Objects range from photo portraits to a journalistic ‘zine, which will be on sale for $2, with proceeds split between PlattefForum — whose art programs help underserved youth develop skills and confidence — and the Mi Casa Resource Center, which encourages economic success for Latino families in Denver.
Set up in the center of PlatteForum’s main gallery space is a slapped-together homeless encampment that visitors can enter and experience themselves. It’s constructed from cast-off materials, such as cardboard and police tape.
Gerard and Vaughan collected the materials themselves from abandoned encampments around the neighborhood, picking up a plastic tarp or a shopping cart or a sleeping bag from places where they’d been left behind. The artifacts, they believe, were often stolen and ditched goods taken from homeless folks who have to protect their few possession around the clock, or risk losing them.
“Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do?” is full of little realizations like that, and tells its stories in direct ways, through factual objects and direct testimony.
Its most effective method comes from interviews the students recorded with locals who have dealt with a lack of shelter. Gerard spent a good deal of time rounding up, and pinning down, four diverse characters who don’t operate on the usual 9-to-5 schedule.“I wanted the variety of stories to speak to the complexity of the issue,” she said.
The stories, captured on audio and video, require a serious listen, and they are unfiltered and revealing.
Among the subjects is Jessie, who lives outside and whose religious beliefs have made him a sort of street preacher; Jennifer, homeless on-and-off since she was 15 and now couch-surfing as she attends nursing school; Becky, who is autistic and lesbian and has to separate from her transgendered spouse most nights because shelters segregate guests by sex; Patrick, who tells vivid stories about life outside, a skill he honed as a writer for the homeless journal, the “Denver Voice”; and Stephanie, who makes what she can playing the guitar on sidewalks for tips and who Gerard describes as “a street mom to the homeless youth out there.”
Their stories explain a lot, touching on topics of mental illness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, incarceration and other factors that set their situations on course.
The exhibit closes with Gerard’s own collages, which she has been making as events unfolded around her. They are deep dives into ideas of shelter in Colorado, melding multiple images from publications as diverse as “National Geographic” and “Hustler” into scenes that are part inside, part outside, and with observations that are part insider and part outsider. Gerard — who lives in Brooklyn and is about to publish a compilation of essays titled “Sunshine State” — has written extensively about homelessness and has a keen grasp of sensory detail.
Overall, the exhibit takes on a different flavor than most art gallery shows in Denver. It definitely has a do-it-yourself edge, and it tries to be sensitive to its subject. PlatteForum, for example, usually holds it opening receptions in the evening. For this show, it moved the time to noon because, as the artist and students learned during their research, homeless people often have to line up at shelters by 5 p.m. or risk losing a spot for the night.
As a December attraction, “Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do?” isn’t exactly “The Nutcracker” or “A Christmas Carol,” but it gives Denver, and the families who flock to those holiday staples, a real-life alternative, and a chance to understand and grow compassion for those around them in a way that’s equally dramatic and theatrical, only without the special effects (or the high price; this show is free).
As years go, 2016 wasn’t typical in this city, especially in and around Curtis Park. The sweeps shook it up. This exhibit offers a chance to shake up the usual holiday traditions for all of us.